Back in the golden age of Hollywood, a lazy journalist prompted my second-favourite telegram of all time. Not bothering to consult library sources, he simply wired Cary Grant’s agent with the blunt question, “HOW
OLD CARY GRANT?” The actor himself opened the telegram and wired back, “OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?”
Splendid though this is, pride of place
in the now obsolete field of telegraphic excellence must go to G. K. Chesterton. As a regular but absent-minded traveller, he struggled to stay on top of his itinerary. As a result, he once sent his wife the immortal eight words: “AM IN WOLVERHAMPTON.
WHERE OUGHT I TO BE?”
This was not an example of a self-conscious witticism or a pithy put-down, just a cry for help from a lost man who had a feeling he
was in the wrong place. Of course, it has special resonance for anyone actually from Wolverhampton, and –– that being the case for me –– it summarises the first nineteen years of my life. For many, many years, through
my twenties and thirties, and even into my forties, as the bright hopes of youth tarnished more and more with a sad film of experience, I could still lie awake at night and think, “Whatever else has gone wrong, at least I got out of Wolverhampton.”
When Elsie was still a puppy we had a short holiday in Norfolk, in a substantial village called Laxfield. On the last day I treated myself to half-an-hour in the fine parish
church, which has much to recommend it still, despite the depredations of the Reformation which were particularly enthusiastic in those parts. But I don’t remember the fine dimensions or the superb fifteenth-century Seven Sacraments font so much as a
simple poem I found in the south aisle, clearly the work of a local school project. A thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl had written very touchingly about how glad she was that she lived in Laxfield. I wish I had photographed the poem, and had the words to
hand now, but I have never forgotten the sentiments. I realised that I had never, ever felt such a simple sense of belonging as that young lady managed to convey.
as time wore on, I did catch the odd moment of pride for the town that had seen me to adulthood. There was the Sunday lunchtime I was sitting in a country pub a few miles west of Wolverhampton, listening to a family who had clearly come out for the day. Three
generations of Wulfrunians were arguing about the Latin names of birds, and my heart did a little flip of pleasure as I listened to them. Then there was a visit to the Black Country Museum, on a grey autumn day when the smell of small coal, artistically piled
up in the rain, took me straight back to the open fires of my childhood. In the cafeteria, by late afternoon there remained just three types of sandwich. Next to a “Three-Cheese Sandwich” was the altogether more affluent “Four-Cheese Sandwich”,
overshadowed only by its neighbour, the “Five-Cheese Sandwich”. You have to admire a place for spotting a good idea and running with it. It was not really until my mid-fifties that I began to feel the warmth of the region that grew me, and nursed
the faintest of thoughts that perhaps, one day, I might live there again. Recently I watched, The Boy with the Topknot, a TV adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s attempts to reconcile his Wolverhampton family with the new life he had made for himself
in London. The contrast between his life and mine left me in tears.
And now I live in Stirling. Stirling is not just in Scotland, it is at the heart
of Scottishness. A brisk ten-minute ascent from my front door takes Elsie and I to the gates of Stirling Castle. There a statue of Robert the Bruce stares heroically down to the Thistles Shopping Centre, and tourists are sure to get him pictured against the
massive monument to William Wallace, a mile-and-a-half away across the Forth. William Wallace won his defining battle at Stirling Bridge, just below the castle walls, in 1297, while Robert I won the battle that gave birth to true Scottish nationhood
at Bannockburn, which is now a suburb of Stirling, two miles away to the south. There another statue of King Robert presides over the Bannockburn memorial and Elsie’s new vet’s. Wallace, not to be outdone, has his second memorial beneath the clock-tower
in the centre of town. Within a few yards of the castle walls there are monuments to Robbie Burns, Rob Roy and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Scotland’s last successful Prime Minister. There is even an information board about Billy Bremner.
Stirling was the capital of Scotland from the twelfth century until after the Stewarts moved to London to succeed Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots second husband, Lord Darnley,
played the second oldest-recorded game of golf at the end of our road, and their son, the future James Vi and I was anointed in the Church of the Holy Rood, at the town end of the castle mound. James III is buried here, near the spot where, much earlier, the
great Kenneth Macalpin defeated the Picts to become the first king of a united Scotland. Stirling has been called the “Gateway to the Highlands”, and “a huge broach that clasps Highlands and Lowlands together”. “He who holds Stirling,
holds Scotland”, it is said, a point that has been demonstrated, in bloody detail, on numerous occasions over the centuries. When I step outside my back door in the all-too-brief summer months, I hear bagpipes from the castle ramparts above. It is hard
to live here and pretend I’m still in Sussex.
Just as I was considering the matter myself, a recent article on welldoing.org,
one of the therapist listing sites, discussed the issue of belonging. Counsellor Daniel Wiegand initially felt like a fish out of water when he moved with his partner to New York:
I would ask myself what
it meant to belong somewhere. What does it mean to be part of a community? For me, it wasn’t necessarily about being in a particular geographical location. It was about being seen and heard and acknowledged by the people I lived amongst. And also me
seeing and hearing them too. Belonging is about having connections and relationships with others, they are the light in which we shine and flourish. As Carl Rogers himself said: ‘When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to see
my world in a new way and move on.’ Without this sense of belonging, or being seen and heard, an important part of me was slowly withering away. Belonging and being part of a community is the blood that keeps us alive, it is the magic that holds people
Hmm. I’m not sure about being seen and acknowledged by the people I live amongst. I have generally lived outside the local groups and organisations that make up a community.
I don’t do good works or have a favourite pub; I don’t make friends easily or chat for the sake of chatting. I can tell myself that standing apart is a proper way for therapists to behave –– we don’t want to be bumping into our
clients all the time socially, and putting them, and us, into awkward positions –– but in reality I think this is just an excuse. I have found a job that justifies my own introversion and misanthropy. I came across a splendid quotation the other
day, in a book a by David Foster Wallace that a client gave me when I left Sussex:
Lonely people tend… to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other people. They
are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.
I quibble a bit at the word “lonely”, but I know what he means. In some ways it would be nice to be seen and acknowledged by the people I
live amongst, but in others it would be an awful lot of trouble. Surely there are other ways of belonging?
A rather beautiful poem at the Bannockburn memorial
suggests there might just be. Curved oak beams are held aloft above grey block walls to form a rotunda at the spot where Robert the Bruce is said to have raised his standard in 1314, and on these are carved nine short lines, a modern creation by Kathleen Jamie
that she describes as a profound bow to an earlier Scottish literary tradition. The poem is called, Here Lies Our Land:
Here lies our land: every airt
Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,
Belonging to none but itself.
We are mere transients, who sing
Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,
Northern lights and siller tides,
Small folk playing our part.
‘Come all ye’, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.
Taking Scotland to heart is a challenge, of course, but perhaps not an impossible one.
All the same, however good I get at it, however much a feeling of belonging I ever manage to generate for myself in this place, there are always going to be those who did it better. The castle hill
in Stirling is home to five separate cemeteries, and some of them have glorious views over to the Ochil hills and the Forth flood plain. They all nestle against the stalwart protection of Stirling’s medieval castle walls and are anchored to their rocky
outcrops by heavy, handsome trees and soft peaty turf. One of the smaller ones is the Snowdon Cemetery, facing westwards on the shoulder of the castle mound. On the right of the entrance are a number of Italian graves: settlers who lived here for generations
and whose descendants are undoubtedly still around, but on the north side is an even more touching memorial. It is dedicated to the memory of Peter Andrew Dewar who died in 1984, and two tiny babies: Katherine Margaret, who died in 1942, aged four weeks, and
Philip, who died twelve years later at 10 days of age. The most striking thing is that the stone was placed there by Peter’s wife and the mother of the two dead children, Sheila, and she died in 2012 at the age of 97. Her name is inscribed in black,
in contrast to the white lettering of the rest of the family. Clearly the stone was erected perhaps as much as twenty-eight years before Sheila died, with a suitable space left for her when she did. Sheila Dewar knew where she belonged: between her husband
and her children. Her name was going into that space on that stone, no matter how long she had to wait. There was nowhere else for her to be. That is belonging.